Sunday, June 26, 2011

and now we come to the end, sort of, at least until September: The Track of Sand, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2010
Originally published as La pista di sabbia
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
264 pp

And now, I've made it to the last book I own by Camilleri, The Track of Sand.  I'll be getting Potter's Field in September, so I'll be returning to Inspector Montalbano in only a couple of months. As much as I love this series, it's time to move on for a bit -- to another detective, another country, another climate. And I really have to get back to the literary fiction at some point because the Booker Prize longlist will be announced at the end of July, which is a two-month stretch of reading.   And before I launch into my post on Track of Sand, I also want to note that reading these novels has made a huge impression on me, not only in terms of these books, but I've decided that after I finish off the CWA International Dagger shortlist, I'm going to start reading crime fiction novels by authors mentioned throughout this series.  I've finished all of the Martin Beck series and the Wallander books, but there are still several authors mentioned by Camilleri that I haven't yet read. 

Montalbano's melancholic self reappears in this novel, number twelve in this most excellent and unique series of crime fiction, and oddly enough, it starts with a dream involving a very distorted Livia who turns into a sort of a horse. And even more oddly enough, when Montalbano wakes up, throws open the shutters and looks out the window onto the beach, there's a dead horse laying there.  The horse had been brutally bludgeoned with an iron bar, and Montalbano determines that there were at least four culprits involved.  He calls in his colleagues to take a look, and then City Hall to come and remove the carcass.  But by the time the city people get there, the carcass has disappeared. It isn't long until a beautiful woman named Rachele Esterman comes to the station to file a report of a missing horse that had been in the Vigata stables of one Saverio Lo Duca, one of the richest men in Italy.  The case is puzzling, but it's about to become even stranger, as Montalbano's home is broken into and ransacked.  This case will send Montalbano into a surreal world of Italy's aging nobility, clandestine horse racing, a case involving the Mafia and even worse, the beautiful Rachele. And all the while, Montalbano is trying to get his relationship with Livia back on track, which at this point may be more difficult than solving this strange case.

Once again, Camilleri has given his readers a few hours of sheer reading delight, in which the old gang is still together, continuing to grow and change like people do in the real world. Montalbano is still concerned with getting older, especially now that Mimi Augello is sporting a new pair of glasses.  We also get another insight into Montalbano's character with a lovely reflective set piece in which he remembers a fishing expedition with his uncle, and the unmatched taste of a fried sole. But he's still often amazed at the sheer absurdities of the system under which he lives and works, at television which conveys information "dressed up in details and circumstances that were either completely wrong, utterly false, or pure fantasy," and at the public for buying into it. Yet, this  doesn't stop his appetite -- and although he manages to find some of the most unpalatable food in Sicily in this novel, what he gets from Enzo and Adelina more than make up for it.  There are a few comical scenes, but as in the book just prior to this one, it seems that aside from the mystery at the heart of this book, Montalbano's more serious side is beginning to take center stage. And, as I've said so many times before, while sometimes the circumstances surrounding the crimes or their solutions might be a little murky or uneven, by book twelve everyone knows that you don't really read these books for the mystery elements -- they take on a life of their own. This book is no exception.

I can't end without a note about the translation by Stephen Sartarelli: I've said this before, but these books are so nicely rendered into English that sometimes I've forgotten that I'm reading a translation. I have appreciated the notes at the end of the books, which have been quite helpful and have helped to illuminate some situations in which an English translation may not have exactly fit.

Let me just say this: I love these books, I love the character of Montalbano and those of his quirky colleagues, and there will never be another series of novels like this one.

crime fiction from Italy

The Wings of the Sphinx, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2009
Originally published as Le ali della sfinge, 2006
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
231 pp

Moving on to the eleventh novel in the Inspector Montalbano series, Wings of the Sphinx is another excellent entry , although definitely more serious in tone than many of Camilleri's earlier books.  Events of the previous book August Heat are still fresh in his mind when Salvo is called to the scene of a murder, where a very young girl, barely only twenty, was found naked in a dump with a shotgun wound that tore her face off.  The officers have only an odd tattoo on her shoulder, one that turns out to be a sphinx moth. By focusing on the tattoo, Montalbano makes the link between this victim and other girls who were all taken in by an organization called Benevolence, whose main work is keeping young immigrant women away from the streets and finding them gainful employment.   While working on the murder, he also has to contend with the case of a missing businessman who, it seems, has been kidnapped.  But Montalbano's investigation is stymied when it turns out that Benevolence is backed by some very powerful people with friends in very high places, and they're breathing down the commissioner's neck.

But the investigation is not all that's on Montalbano's mind. He not only has to deal with a system that's going to pot where

 the police stations had no gasoline, the courts had no paper, the hospitals had no thermometers, and meanwhile the government was thinking about building a bridge over the Strait of Messina. But there was always plenty of gasoline for the useless escorts of ministers, vice ministers, undersecretaries, committee chairmen, senators, chamber deputies, regional deputies, cabinet chiefs, and underassistant briefcase carriers.......

but he also has to act as mediator between his two warring selves, Montalbano One and Montalbano Two, who "were always in disagreement."  And his relationship with Livia has taken a personal toll on Salvo, as things have become pretty rocky between them.  While considering the dead girl's tattoo, he comes to an insightful revelation:

The love between him and Livia had been exactly like the flight of a sphinx moth.
At first, and for many years, it had been straight, sure, focused, and determined, capable of spanning an entire ocean.
Then, at a certain point, that splendid, straight line of flight had broken apart, zigzagging this way and that. It became...uncertain and confused.
In this novel, it seems, Montalbano is at his most morose self -- lamenting things that are wrong with the world at large, not to mention in his personal sphere of life.

But there's still enough lighthearted humor in Montalbano, his close circle of colleagues and in how he sets out to beat a system that sometimes makes no sense to keep Camilleri's faithful readers happy in this novel; not even Salvo's often gloomy outlook can override the antics of Catarella,  the inspector's enjoyment of Enzo's Trattoria or the lovely meals left by Adelina in the fridge at Marinella.  And on top of everything, The Wings of the Sphinx offers a very good set of crimes that need solving. 

It's no wonder that this novel finds itself on the CWA International Dagger shortlist -- and I hope that its inclusion encourages potential first-time Camilleri readers to go back to the beginning of the series to see what they've missed.

crime fiction from Italy

August Heat, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2009
originally published as La vampa d'agosto, 2006
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
278 pp

August Heat, book # 10 to feature Inspector Salvo Montalbano, is hands down my favorite book of the entire series.  August Heat was nominated for last year's CWA International Dagger Award, which was won by Johan Theorin for his outstanding The Darkest Room (and whose new book The Quarry is winging its way here across the Atlantic as we speak).  When I read this book last year, it was my first foray into the world of Inspector Montalbano, and I was a bit lost having never read any of the previous books. Reading it now in its place in the series order made for a much better experience on several levels. 

In a scorching, palpable August heat, Montalbano is volunteered by Livia to find a seaside summer vacation rental (a nearly impossible task) for her friend Laura and Laura's family -- Guido, her husband and Bruno, a very active three year-old who "was a master at busting the cojones of all creation."  Miraculously, after several real estate agents had laughed in Montalbano's face when he makes enquiries about finding a place, there is a cancellation at Marina de Montereale.  The first two days go well, but beginning on day three, the family runs into problems.  First, an army of cockroaches moves in.  On day five, there's an invasion of mice.  On the eighth day, the house is visited by a parade of spiders.  Then it rains. At the point where Laura can't take much more she says "You know, I'm beginning to reconsider all those films I've seen about haunted houses full of spirits that come up out of hell," and she doesn't know it at the time, but her words are prophetic.  When the weather is finally beautiful again and all of the animal plagues have been controlled, the family decides to spend the day on the beach. But there's a problem: Bruno is missing.  All of the adults search the house and the grounds, then Montalbano and Gallo search, with no results.  But the family cat finally leads Salvo to Bruno, who has gone under the house through a hole in the ground.  When Montalbano goes to investigate, he discovers another floor of the house, completely buried.  He also makes another discovery -- there's an old trunk there, containing the body of a dead girl.  His first mistake: not telling Livia or Laura's family about the corpse right away so as not to ruin their vacation, but once they leave, he's eager to get going with the investigation.

August Heat  has everything I have come to love about these books and about Camilleri's writing. The humor in this book is at times laugh-out-loud funny, but is balanced with the rather sorrowful twist at the end of the story. The sense of place is strong and described so well that if I ever go to Sicily, I'd probably recognize the place, especially in the dead of summer, when the heat is all encompassing, the air barely moves, clothes are drenched in the amount of time it takes to get to a car, and it's even too hot to cook.  The characters continue to grow and evolve, and by the end of this book, there's a Montalbano whose concern over getting older will lead him down a path that he probably shouldn't have taken. On the flip side, although the core mystery is very well done and well plotted, the whodunit is  easy for the experienced armchair detective to solve, and once again Camilleri sticks to the formula he's used pretty much throughout the entire series. But the truth is, like all of the Inspector Montalbano books, the crime solving is just a fraction of why people become attached to this series.  At one point while Montalbano is reading and enjoying one of the Martin Beck novels by Sjowall and Wahloo (also one of my all-time favorite crime-fiction series)  he "dedicated the book to all those who did not deign to read mystery novels because, in their opinion, they were only entertaining puzzles." As in the Beck series, Montalbano manages to sneak in a few well-deserved jabs at the system in each one of his novels. 

All I can say that I haven't said before throughout writing about this series is that as long as Camilleri keeps these novels coming, I'll keep reading them. And for any reader of crime fiction, these books are definitely ones not to miss. 

crime fiction from Italy

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Montalbano 2x: The Patience of the Spider and The Paper Moon, by Andrea Camilleri

The Patience of the Spider
Penguin Books, 2007
Originally published as La pazienza del ragno, 2004
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
244 pp

Following Rounding the Mark as the eighth novel in this series, Inspector Salvo Montalbano is on leave, recuperating from events at the end of the previous story. Livia is there with him at the house in Marinella, but sadly that means that Adelina is not there to cook for him. Instead, he's been put on a low-calorie diet, and his life right at the moment is like his food -- rather bland and circumscribed. But when a young girl, Susanna Mistretta, is kidnapped, Montalbano is temporarily recalled to duty to solve the case. But as it turns out, it won't be Montalbano's case at all. His job  is to investigate and report to Inspector Filippo (Fifi) Minutolo, a colleague who's an expert in this area, ostensibly because he's a Calabrian from Messina who, according to Bonetti-Alderighi, "should know a lot about kidnappings."  He is to be the "Dora, the Riparia, or the Baltea" to Minutolo's Po.

Absolutely no one can understand exactly why anyone would choose to kidnap Susanna Mistretta -- her family is broke, her mother is gravely ill, and neither she nor her father is someone really important. The police will just have to wait, but Montalbano, of course, cannot just sit tight waiting for the kidnapper's demands to surface.  Furthermore, the entire town, it seems, is getting involved. And this time Montalbano doesn't just have his annoying boss breathing down his neck -- surprisingly, Livia is constantly on him about the case. He didn't tell her soon enough. He's a hypocrite. He's not doing enough.  

To be perfectly honest, I figured this out so early in the story that I really didn't feel like finishing the book. But I stuck with it, not just to prove myself right, but because the mysteries and their solutions are not the only reasons I read these novels. There are  the delightful characters, of course, but also, not one sensory experience is left out of Camilleri's descriptions of Sicily, not even smell -- Montalbano is able to experience smells as colors in a condition known as synesthesia.  I get this sense that Camilleri isn't always delighted with "progress" -- he successfully juxtaposes the beauty of the mountains, sand and sea with the ugliness of a man-made environment that impedes on the natural surroundings.  Add to that Camilleri's commentary (via his characters and his plots) on the corrupt dealings of Italy's power brokers and you begin to understand why Camilleri writes what and how he does. Not unlike many other writers in the realm of translated crime fiction, he's got a set of truths (as he sees them)  to get across to his readers.  But in the end, it's Montalbano's sense of justice and his keen observations of human nature that round out this story, so that guessing the solution early on isn't so bad.  It's also funny to watch Salvo sneaking away for decent food...these were some of the funnier moments of this book.

I'm not going to say that I loved this book, because I didn't, but it was okay. And although perhaps not the best in the bunch, The Patience of the Spider is still good reading, and my hat is tipped high in the air to Stephen Sartarelli, who brings the story to his English readers so perfectly!

The Paper Moon
Penguin Books, 2008
Originally published as La luna di carta, 2005
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
264 pp

The Paper Moon is Montalbano's ninth adventure, and we find our irascible hero becoming more obsessed with aging and trying to get past thoughts of when his "dying day comes."   Actually, Montalbano is only in his fifties, so his worries might be a bit premature, and obviously he may think he's losing it, but his performance on this very odd case leaves the reader begging to differ. Even Livia thinks he's demented.

Sgt. Caterella brings in a woman to see Montalbano at the station. Mimi Augello, on whom Salvo would prefer to dump the visitor, is home with his baby, waiting for the doctor. Fazio is involved in a drug overdose case, so the Inspector is the only one left. As it turns out, the woman, Michela Pardo, is there to report her brother Angelo's disappearance.  Because Angelo is an adult and may have gotten it into his head to just go away for a while, Montalbano explains that he can't move on the case right away, but Michela's worries are so intense that he agrees to meet her at her brother's apartment later that evening. When they go into the apartment, there's no sign of Angelo, until Montalbano sees a small recess in the wall with a staircase within. At the top of the stairs is a room on the terrace, to which Michela has no key. Salvo breaks down the door and discovers Angelo's body -- collapsed in the armchair with half of his face blown off, his zipper opened and a certain part of his anatomy hanging out. Right away Michela accuses her brother's girlfriend Elena of the crime, but as the investigation proceeds, Montalbano's not so sure.  Angelo has his own secrets that may or may not be relevant to the crime, and the Inspector will leave no stone unturned until he gets to the truth.  In the meantime, Salvo continues to stress over growing old, is called to the Commissioner's office several times to find that the meetings are continually postponed, and has to fend off unwanted advances from a woman with carte blanche to have affairs.  And there's a delightfully funny moment when of all things, Montalbano dresses a piece of salmon with lemon juice and olive oil.

Again, I have to admit to have sort of figured out parts of this plot midstream -- not all, but a couple of key pieces of the core mystery.  I think once you're read so many of these and have got the pattern down, it's less difficult to figure out where Camilleri is going with his crime elements.  But as noted above, it's not just the crime that keeps drawing me back.  By now Montalbano is more along the lines of an old friend who I feel like checking in on now and then, just to see what he's up to.  I also think it makes a big difference as a reader when you read the entire series pretty much back to back in publication order, because there is little variance in the rather formulaic construction of these novel from book to book. I love the political critiques, the food, the characters and I feel like every time I'm reading one of these books, Sicily becomes more and more familiar to me. Most of all, I really like Montalbano -- his humor, his compassion, and everything else.

Three more to go and then I must wait until September to finish the series with the release then of The Potter's Field here in the US.  If anyone reading this is considering Camilleri's books, don't start with this one that is nearing the end -- take the time to go back to the beginning of it all.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rounding the Mark, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2006
originally published as Il giro di boa, 2003
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
264 pp.

Continuing the Salvo Montalbano series in order, Rounding the Mark is number seven, leaving me six more to go. Five if you don't count the newest one, The Potter's Field, which won't get here until September.

It's not a good night for Montalbano. He is unable to sleep, and even more telling, unable to eat.  He's decided to turn in his resignation, feeling betrayed by the news about a raid on the Diaz School in Genoa during the G8 meetings there, in which evidence had been found to be planted, the stabbing of a policeman by an "antiglobalist" had been discovered to have been self inflicted, and that ultimately there was no legitimate reason that the raid needed to have taken place.  As he often does when he's restless, he decides to  take a naked swim in the ocean in the early morning hours.  As he turns on his back and does a stroke, he bumps into something that turns out to be a foot. He apologizes to the unseen person, only to discover that it is really a corpse.

Some days later, he goes to deliver a pair of glasses to a cop friend at the scene of the landing of illegal immigrants, when a little boy runs off the boat and away from everyone.  Montalbano goes after him, captures him and delivers him to his mother. But he can't help but notice that the boy looks petrified and is highly agitated.  After some time, the boy's body is later discovered -- someone has hit him with a car and killed him.  Wondering if perhaps his own actions were linked to the boy's death, he begins investigating and will not let up until he finds out the truth.

Despite Montalbano's disgust at his government, the corrupt policemen and his ongoing battle with what he feels might be old age creeping up on him, there are some really funny episodes that made me laugh out loud. First, Salvo's naked "rescue" of the corpse is caught on television.  Then there's an ongoing gag about a cop named Torretta, who seems to have opened an "emporium" in the station, always ready with anything that anyone could possibly need. Catarella's mangling of Italian leads Montalbano to a vital clue through someone Catarella insists is named Pontius Pilate.  But there is nothing funny at all about the way Camilleri depicts an ongoing and growing problem in Italy, one that is shared by many countries around the world.

Here we find Montalbano at his most intense so far, and although the overall mystery wasn't as satisfying as it might have been,  it was still quite good; it is yet another excellent entry in the series. Camilleri's regular characters are so well developed and well portrayed that I feel like I know these people well by this point,  yet I'm always surprised by the twists and turns in Montalbano's life.  Even though at times these books become formulaic and often rely on odd coincidences, and although these traits are not ones I particularly care for in any mystery or crime fiction novel, Camilleri's writing keeps me reading.  It's easy to overlook the flaws because I'm having such a great time reading.

crime fiction from Italy

The Smell of the Night, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books,  2005
originally published as L'odore della notte, 2001
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
229 pp.

"Did you say the smell of the night?"
"Yes. The night changes smells, depending on the hour."

Montalbano's back and once again in his sixth case of the series. This time he gets involved with the case of a missing financial "genius" who had gained the trust of several investors and then promptly disappeared, taking their money with him. Did he go off to "live it up with beautiful half-naked women" in Polynesia, or did Emanuele Gargano take some money off of a very angry and vengeful Mafioso?  Nobody knows, although Montalbano's superiors are inclined to believe the latter (as they generally do, even when unfounded), while Montalbano runs his own investigation.  But Montalbano is in trouble with the Commissioner over his actions during a previous case, not having to do with the job, but dealing with a boy named Francois first introduced in The Snack Thief.  He's also once again in trouble with Livia, Mimi's got a case of pre-wedding jitters, and someone's gone and cut down the old olive tree where he goes to think.  Worst of all, he feels the "ignoble head" of old age coming on.

The Smell of the Night offers its readers a solid mystery, a great investigation and one of the most impressive endings of this series so far.  As far as the whodunit is concerned, I had absolutely no clue up until the final denouement, which is always a great thing. But as usual, it is the author's finely-honed sense of place that steals the show, along with his devotion to continuing character development, and his introduction of some new and rather quirky people that help Montalbano throughout the case.  And let's not forget the food.

As I continue through this series, it's getting a bit difficult to find new things to say about these books, because although some may be a bit better than others, I'm finding that I am loving them all.  All the things that make one book good are continued throughout the rest.  Perhaps some of the crimes and their solutions aren't as good in one or two of these books as they are in others, but I've come to realize that I'm really reading them at this point just to see what's going to happen next with Montalbano and his colleagues at the Vigata police station.  When all is said and done, and I move on to another author's works,  I'm probably not going to remember specific crimes in Camilleri's novels, but I'll definitely remember the setting,  the food and especially the crazy group of characters surrounding Montalbano.

As with every previous book, I definitely recommend this one, and since I tend to be a series-reading purist, I'd say start with the first book, The Shape of Water and make your way forward so you don't miss anything.

crime fiction from Italy

Monday, June 13, 2011

River of Shadows, by Valerio Varesi

MacLehose Press/Quercus
originally published as Il fiume delle nebbie, 2003
translated by Joseph Farrell
259 pp.

Italian author Valerio Varesi adds his mark to the English-speaking (and reading) crime-fiction world with his series featuring Commissario Soneri of which River of Shadows is the first to be published in English.  According to their website, MacLehose will be publishing two more of Varesi's novels in the near future: The Dark Valley in 2012 and Gold, Frankincense and Dust in 2013.  River of Shadows definitely does not fall on the lighter side of crime fiction; it starts with a dark and gloomy atmosphere and never lets up.  Balanced against the series I'm currently reading by Andrea Camilleri, this book carries a pronounced shift in tone in terms of the main character, the crimes & their solutions, and even in terms of the landscape. Set both in Parma and along the banks of the Po River, the novel will take the reader on a journey not only along the misty river, but through the course of Italian history as well.

The novel opens with a first chapter that will set the atmosphere for the rest of the novel. The Po is flooding after four days of steady rain. At a boatman's club near a river jetty, a group of boatmen sit playing cards about eleven p.m., watching the action through the window, listening to their radio reports and exchanging information about the flood's progress along the banks.  They hear a noise and realize that a barge belonging to old Tonna, who is "more at home in wet weather than Noah,"  has just docked with his cargo of wheat. A cabin light is on in the barge, and in a little while, it seems that Tonna is preparing to take off again. While they try to figure out what's happening with the barge, the boatmen hear that evacuations have started along the edges of the river and the flood situation is becoming more intense. The light in the barge goes out and comes on again, and the barge sets off, minus navigation lights, leaving rope on the quay and the gangplank thrown sideways. As the boatmen ponder the meaning of this series of events, they radio a warning about the barge, and are all carefully following reports of Tonna's barge sightings on the river  The water is steadily rising, the club members are gradually taking equipment out of the club. At three a.m. they learn that the barge has run aground, and to their surprise, that no one was aboard. So what happened to Tonna?

In Parma, in the meantime, Comissario Soneri of the squadra mobile (The Flying Squad) is called to investigate the death of an elderly man who went through a glass window at a hospital. Some of the police think it's suicide, but a couple of clues left behind  lead Soneri to believe it's murder. The dead man was a bit of an oddball who would wander through different departments and talk to the patients.  While thinking about the dead man on the way back to his office, Soneri receives a call from his girlfriend Angela, who asks him if he's read the newspaper story about a barge that was adrift on the Po before going aground with no one on board. When she tells Soneri the barge operator's name of Anteo Tonna, he does a double take: the name of the man who went through the hospital window was Decimo Tonna.  In an intuitive moment, he understands that this is no coincidence -- and that the two crimes are definitely linked. But how?  He will spend the rest of the novel getting to the root of this puzzle, as he tries to figure out who the Tonnas were and who might have wanted them dead.

Soneri is an interesting figure. He has an ability to sense what's important, largely through interpreting the impressions he gets from other people. He's willing to sit quietly, waiting out those he's questioning, knowing that often it takes time for people to say what's on their minds. Although he leaves the background fact gathering to his colleagues, his strength is in how he takes the information and applies it to his own often-intuitive conjectures.  He is also clever at interpreting the landscape, not an easy task along the fogbound river.  Soneri is not a huge fan of technology, often forgetting that his cell phone needs an occasional battery charge, unable to even change his ring tone from its current setting.  As far as computers go, he leaves that to his co-workers and works from his gut.  He detests the politics involved in his work,although as his girlfriend notes, work is the only thing that really gets his attention. It also tends to cause a rise in his blood pressure. He has no problem sitting out in the cold, traveling the same ground over and over again -- anything that will help him find the truth.  The Commissario loves good food and very good wine, never turning down a delectable dish, especially those that remind him of his childhood, and although he forgets about his girlfriend sometimes, he makes up for it by humoring Angela's desire for sex in places where they might possibly be discovered.  Although Varesi does not really delve into the lives of his colleagues too much, they are obviously people on whom Soneri can depend. 

It is really the Po river and the people who live on its edges -- the boatmen, the fishermen, the families who have been there for generations -- that bring out the sense of place in this novel.  Varesi's descriptions of the water, the mist that envelops everything, the branches poking out over the top of the river are intense. Even the rain in the opening chapter takes on a life of its own.  His depiction of a terrible time in Italian history brings out the point that some memories will live on well past the moment of their beginnings, and that there are events both unforgettable and unforgivable which have stayed locked in time even though the world has moved on. This series is one to look forward to, not simply for the crime elements but because of the author's ability in setting up an atmosphere that lasts throughout the entire book.

 I liked River of Shadows and would definitely recommend it to readers of Italian crime fiction. You're not going to get another Salvo Montalbano here -- Soneri is a whole different ball game, much more serious, not someone you feel like you could hug when all is said and done.  On a crime-intensity level, it's also a step or two up the ladder, with little comic relief and much greater focus on what's at the root of the crime. I just can't get over how very descriptive Varesi's writing is, and although I read crime fiction mainly for the intensity level and the puzzle factor,  I also greatly appreciate a well-written story. 

This novel is on this year's shortlist for the CWA International Dagger Award. 

crime fiction from Italy

Excursion to Tindari, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2005
originally published as La gita a Tindari, 2000
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
295 pp

I've arrived at book five in the Montalbano series, and I just can't seem to get enough of these novels. Truth be told, they're highly addicting.

 Excursion to Tindari is a puzzler that will intrigue both fans of Camilleri and mystery readers in general.  A phone call lands Montalbano in the middle of the case of the dead man at Via Cavour 44.  Just one bullet in the middle of the forehead killed young Emanuele 'Nenè' Sanfilippo, and since the captain of the Flying Squad and his second in command were laid up (one with dysentery after a visit to Beirut and the other in the hospital in New York after a mugging), Montalbano is told that the case is his.  While he's just getting started on that case, a man shows up at the Vigàta station to ask for help with his missing parents, Mr. and Mrs. Griffo,  and permission to break down the door of their apartment.  Montalbano puts Gallo on the case until he finds out that the missing parents lived in the same apartment building as the dead Sanfilippo, then decides to handle it himself. After a spot on the television news regarding their disappearance brings forth several witnesses, the police discover that the Griffos were last seen on a bus tour to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Tindari.   After that, they might has well have dropped off the face of the Earth.  Salvo just knows intuitively that the two cases must be connected -- but how?  As he's delving into both investigations, he receives a call that he can't refuse: Don Balduccio Sinagra, the head of one of the two major crime families, wants him to stop by for a visit. And, on the personal front, Mimi Augello has just informed Montalbano that he's met a woman and is planning on marrying her, and Montalbano realizes he may be losing a good officer and a good friend. Mimi also informs him that the Commissioner, Bonetti-Alderighi, is happy about Mimi's plans, saying that it was "high time that the band of Mafiosi at Vigàta Police...started to break up."  And of course, let's not forget Livia, who is still depressed over events from book four, Voice of the Violin. But his keen detective work, some subterfuge, and the amazing, mouth-watering Italian dishes he loves help to see him through once more.

One of the funniest scenes in this series thus far is in this book -- in which Montalbano is at 'Nenè' Sanfilippo's apartment late one night reviewing some of the dead man's videocassettes.  Camilleri's  great sense of humor and timing are delightfully captured in English by Sartarelli the translator. The author also manages to drive home the point that although the Mafia's presence is everywhere, the game is changing and there's a new challenge to the police and indeed to the old ways  -- the younger generation of Mafioso have become ruthless, unwilling to sit down and come to some agreement, preferring to solve their issues with knee-jerk violence. The core mysteries are enticing and well plotted, with very plausible and ingenious solutions.  Camilleri also continues his well-defined sense of place that runs through the prior installments of this series, augmented by the richness of personalities and food found in the area.

Now with books 6-12 stacked here ready to go and book 13 preordered from Amazon, it's obvious to me that I've become hooked on this series.  This is not surprising, because they are intelligent and very well-written novels, and with each book the characters become more real. I suggest that anyone considering this series start at the beginning -- your reading experience will be greatly enhanced as you follow Montalbano and his  team at the Vigàta station in the order the books were written. 

crime fiction from Italy

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Voice of the Violin, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2004
originally published as La voce del violino, 1997
249 pp

On to the fourth book in the Salvo Montalbano series with Voice of the Violin.  Although this one is not quite as humorous as its predecessors, it continues Camilleri's most excellent writing and delves more into the characters previously introduced.  This installment is much more focused on plot, although it does bring out Montalbano's more sensitive and compassionate side as he focuses on a most difficult personal issue carried over from events that began in The Snack Thief.

The story begins when Gallo, the Vigata station's official driver, picks up the Inspector to drive him to a funeral. Unfortunately, Gallo suffers from "Indianapolis Complex," and while driving too fast, plows into a parked car. On the return trip, Montalbano notices the car is still parked.  Unable to sleep and bothered by the fact that the car hadn't moved and that the note he had left was still there, Montalbano later returns to the scene of the accident, goes to the owner's home, and let himself into the house. It is there that he discovers the body of a woman who had been suffocated to death.  When the crime is reported "anonymously," the police are sent to investigate. Unfortunately for Montalbano, the forensics team discovers that he's left fingerprints everywhere, and on top of this, political maneuvers lead to the Inspector being taken off the case, which is handed over to the flying squad, who promptly shoot their number one suspect.  But do they have the right guy?

Complicating Montalbano's life are unfinished issues with Livia, a woman named Anna Tropeano (a friend of the deceased), and all of the politics involved with Montalbano's new boss. However, none of these issues put a stop to his gourmet appetite and his ongoing friendship with Clementina Vasile Cozzo, to whom Montalbano has "remained as a son."  But what does all of this have to do with a violin? Unknowingly, Clementina will help Salvo get to the truth of the mystery of the dead woman on a Friday morning, when (as is her weekly custom) she gets dressed up and listens to her upstairs neighbor Cataldo Barbera, a reclusive but internally-known violinist, play for her.

The core mystery is excellent -- as is the path to its solution.  How Montalbano deals with the problems brought on by having a new boss who hates him is one of the better parts of this book, but is a situation  in which he has to enlist several of the series' continuing characters.  With each book, returning to this group of friends and colleagues is like returning to people you've known for a long time. That's just one reason I love this series, but it's a big one. And as noted earlier, this particular story is not as funny as the previous ones, but that's okay -- I love reading crime fiction for the crimes and their solutions, and Camilleri did not disappoint in this novel.

Definitely recommended to all readers of crime fiction, whether you like your crime deep and satisfyingly bad or a bit on the lighter side.

crime fiction from Italy

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Whisperer, by Donato Carrisi

Abacus/Little, Brown Book Group, 2011
originally published as Il Suggeritore, 2009
474 pp.
translated by Shaun Whiteside
(note: not available in the US until 2012)

Donato Carrisi is a new author for me, and I probably would never have heard of this book had it not been for Karen at Euro Crime, one of my very favorite blogs on the Internet. Last year, just prior to the announcement of the CWA International Dagger award (for which she was a judge!), Karen made a post about books that might possibly be eligible for the 2011 CWA International Dagger. I put that post on my iphone main screen, and eager to jump on that bandwagon, I started ordering the books as they were published.  That's how The Whisperer made its way into my crime fiction collection.    I don't see that the author has any other books published in English, but I read somewhere that The Whisperer is "Italy's Number One Bestselling Thriller Sensation."

The Whisperer starts out with an fascinating, although rather grotesque, mystery to be solved.  In an unnamed location that could be pretty much anywhere, renowned criminologist Dr. Goran Gavila has been summoned to examine a crime scene, which turns out to be "a circle of little graves."  What was found was horrifying: six severed arms, all belonging to different little girls, the oldest victim only thirteen. The arms were taken from the girls after they had disappeared, starting about twenty-five days earlier.    Despite the best efforts of the police and the public, no culprit has been taken into custody, nor are there any traces of the missing children. The problem is that only five girls had been reported missing, not six, meaning there's another missing girl out there somewhere in grave danger.  Gavila heads up a special team to investigate, bringing in an outsider named Mila Vasquez, a younger police officer who specializes in recovering missing children. The team has to call the killer something, and settles on "Albert," the name of a serial killler from an older case who cut off women's right feet. As the investigation progresses, the killer begins to leave some rather bizarre clues designed to lead the team to the bodies, one by one. There are a number of red herrings throughout the story, a bit of romance, tension among the investigative team members, alternating points of view within the narrative, and even a bit o' the supernatural -- in short something for every reader -- all tied together in this novel's 400+ pages.

But when all is said and done,  The Whisperer, although touted as a "literary thriller," fits neither description. It starts out well, the crime is compelling and the shifting perspectives keep things interesting, as do the dynamics among the investigating team. But all too soon things just get a bit unrealistic, especially with the insertion of the supernatural element into the plot.  It's almost as if the author thought that he had to throw in a combination of elements that might make a book  reach every possible audience, and it just did not play well for me.  He has all of these incredibly bright people investigating the crime, and yet he actually demeans his own characters by adding in the scenes that are simply unbelievable.  Somewhere along the line, the original chilling tone set by the discovery of the little girls' arms got lost, which is too bad, because if the author had continued down that road, slowly building on the suspense through the novel, it could have been really good.

This novel got an overall 3.81 star rating on Goodreads, and several reviewers loved it, one person relating it to the novels of Stieg Larsson. Hmmm. Well, perhaps I missed something, but let's just say, this isn't one of the best crime fiction novels I've ever read. It's definitely not a book that everyone's going to like -- especially (I would think) serious crime fiction junkies. It's much more mainstream than I had hoped, actually, something more along the lines of a summer beach read where you don't have to think too much.  That's not exactly what I look for in my crime reading -- I prefer more of a challenge than is offered by The Whisperer.

(read in May)

crime fiction from Italy

The Snack Thief, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2005
Originally published as Il ladro di merendine, 1996
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
298 pp.

As I work my way through this series, Andrea Camilleri is quickly becoming one of my favorite crime fiction authors, and Salvo Montalbano one of my favorite characters.  How can you not like him? He's  grumpy, cantankerous, and crabby and yet he has a compassionate side.  He lives for the best, most delectable food, and although flawed in many ways, he has an incredible handle on human nature. The Snack Thief is number three in this series, and I wasted absolutely no time after Terra-Cotta Dog to start this book. And after finishing this book, I opened up the next one, The Voice of the Violin. I have a feeling that when that one's over, it's going to be on to number five and on down the line until I've finished every book that's been published in this series.  That's how good these books really are and how much I like them.

The day starts out badly for Montalbano as the story begins, when he is awakened early in the morning by a call from Catarella at the Vigata station. A Tunisian man was killed when the trawler on which he was working was attacked by a Tunisian patrol boat. The trawler was in international waters, and since someone was killed, the government is forced to intervene.  And because the boat came into Vigata, the nearest port, the police there are supposed to provide a detailed report because of the possible international repercussions. Montalbano would prefer not to get involved, and is happy when Mimi Augello takes it on.  The Inspector has a more intriguing case to work on -- that of a businessman named Lapecora, who was found stabbed and dead in the elevator of his apartment building.  As he's investigating this crime, another report is called in about someone stealing pre-lunch snacks from school children.  As he focuses on Lapecora's death, more mysteries begin to reveal themselves, whetting Montalbano's appetite just as much as the promise of alalonga all'agrodolce prepared by his friend Calogero at a local restaurant. And while all of this is going on, Livia decides to come for a visit.

The Snack Thief is a wonderful read.  There are multiple layers of mystery at work in this novel, and as each one is revealed, the story becomes a bit more intriguing.  The characters once again take center stage -- not only are the usual players here, but there are new ones who play off of Montalbano, bringing out different sides of his character. There are many humorous moments,  in the police station, or when Montalbano's hunger makes him a bit grumpy, and especially in the way he deals with his growing (but unfounded) jealousy of Livia and Mimi Augello.  Stephen Sartarelli's translation is so well done that the book just flows -- there is not a line out of place, nor is there any point at which the narrative comes off even a bit awkwardly.  It's absolutely incredible how well the translation captures all the characters' eccentricities, especially those belonging to Montalbano.

I can definitely recommend this one with absolutely no reservations. It will definitely appeal to all readers of crime fiction, from those who read cozy novels on through noir fans.  I admire Camilleri's writing talent, and can't wait to get through the entire series.

crime fiction from Italy

The Terra-Cotta Dog, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books
originally published as Il Cane di terracotta, 1996
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
340 pp

The Terra-Cotta Dog is the second installment of Andrea Camilleri's most excellent series of Italian crime fiction novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Currently, this series consists of thirteen books, beginning with The Shape of Water, set in Sicily.  These books fall on what I'd call the "lighter side" of crime fiction: the author's plots and the crimes are intriguing enough for even the most seasoned crime fiction reader, but at the same time, there is a constant thread of humor that runs throughout the series, mostly due to the author's most excellent characterizations.

The Terra-Cotta Dog begins with a phone call to Inspector Montalbano from one of his old friends. Now a well-known pimp, he has contacted Salvo to arrange a meeting between the inspector and a well-known local Mafioso known as Tano the Greek. As it turns out, Tano wants to arrange his own "capture," because, as he notes, it's time for him to step aside before the new generation of criminals leaves him "dead in a ditch."  Montalbano decides to go along with the ploy.  Their deal ultimately lands Montalbano smack in the middle of a series of odd crimes -- a bizarre supermarket robbery where the goods were found nearby at a gas station the very next day, a car accident that ends up in the death an aging die-hard fascist on his way to give Montalbano information, an unknown person dead in the trunk of a car, and  a weapons cache found in a cave.  And as if that's not enough, the inspector uncovers a strange tableau in a part of the cave which has long been sealed up: the intertwined bodies of a man & a woman, seemingly guarded by an old terra-cotta dog.  Also in the cave are a water jug and a bowl of coins.  The bodies are discovered to have been dead for about fifty years, and Montalbano is more than eager to figure out who they are, why they were sealed into the cave, and whether or not there is any significance to the artifacts left with the bodies.

The characters are what make this book -- especially Montalbano.  At one point he described himself as a "solitary hunter" who likes to "go hunting with others" but wants to be "the only one organizing the hunt." He loves good food and appreciates great cooking, and is looked after by a housekeeper who leaves him food every day except when his girlfriend Livia is there visiting from Genoa. In fact, it's probably not too far off the mark to say that Montalbano tackles his criminal cases like he tackles his food: each and every detail is experienced individually, until the payoff comes in the bigger picture.  In the course of a day, Montalbano also has to deal with a wide variety of personalities. He often drives his colleagues and subordinates crazy with his temperament, but the reverse is true as well.  In the office, for example, there's Catarella, who speaks in a weird mishmash called " 'talian," and gets things mixed up when he does his job of answering the station's telephone calls. Then there's second-in-command Mimi Augello, who pouts and wonders why Montalbano doesn't include him more often in his investigations. He also has to work with the eccentric Judge LoBianco, who has been working for years on a book called The Life and Deeds of Rinaldo and Antonio Lo Bianco, Masters of Law at the University of Girgenti at the time of King Martin the Younger (1402-1409), solely because the judge has decided that Rinaldo and Antonio were his ancestors. Montalbano is also well read, with a reading range from crime fiction to Shakespeare.  But above all, Montalbano is a detective who gets results, never letting up on a case until it's over.

The Terra-Cotta Dog is a very quick read despite its 300+ pages. The story appeals to my sense of humor, my need for captivating crimes, and my absolute delight when the pieces of the puzzle all come together in a coherent manner.  There is also a fully-developed sense of place in this novel -- the reader gets to know Sicily well in terms of landscape,  food, and local customs.  The translation is very well executed, so that you don't stop to wonder what you're missing if you haven't read the book in its original Italian version.  Finally, the book is intelligent, something I appreciate in good crime fiction novels.  The only negative thing I have to say about this one is that the solution to the bodies in the cave mystery was maybe a bit on the hokey side, but after reading the author's note, I see why Camilleri framed it this way. I can definitely recommend this book, especially to crime fiction readers who like lighter fare, and who prefer their crime reads less on the edgy, hardcore, or gritty side.

(read in May)

crime fiction from Italy

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Leopard, by Jo Nesbø

Harvill Secker, 2010
translated by Don Bartlett
originally published as Panserhjerte, 2009
619 pp.

It is just a crying shame that this novel is not going to be available in the U.S. right away, because really, American readers of Jo Nesbø are missing out on one of the very best books in the entire series. I couldn't even purchase a copy from Book Depository directly, so I had to take the roundabout alternative and purchase from BD through Amazon. It's a bit more expensive, but well worth it. Trust me, after finishing The Snowman, you are going to want to read this book as quickly as possible.

In fact, in this episode of the Harry Hole series, the story picks up shortly after the events of The Snowman, which (without giving too much away) took their physical and emotional toll on Harry, sending him as far away from Norway and the police department as possible to Hong Kong. There he lives in squalor, bets money he doesn't have on the horses and runs up serious debts that prevent him from leaving the country. He also discovers that opium lessens his pain and allows him to stay away from the booze. But events back in Norway soon require his presence, and Detective Kaja Solness has come to Hong Kong to collect him and bring him back to Oslo. Harry adamantly refuses, but then relents when it turns out that his father is seriously ill and in the hospital. When he returns, he discovers that there's another serial killer on the loose, a person who has killed two people in a most gruesome fashion and leaves behind no evidence. More murders occur, but he's facing an even tougher problem. His colleagues in the Crime Squad, are in a fight with the Kripos (Krimpolitisentralen) over control of murder investigations, a battle that involves not just the two rival groups, but the future careers of many of Harry's colleagues and even Harry himself. The Kripos have taken jurisdiction over this series of murders, and the investigation is in the hands of Bellman -- a politico who is all about power and control, as opposed to Harry, who wants to solve the case and bring the perpetrator to justice. While this situation complicates matters for the Crime Squad, it doesn't stop Harry from doing his own investigation. Harry gets unofficial assistance from some of his colleagues, as well as some clandestine help from an old friend to figure out what it is that connects the victims together. Once he figures this out, he believes, it will help him with the who and the why. But this is not going to be easy. It will take all that Harry has to give, which right now isn't that much, and will take him back and forth across the globe before his job is done.

The character of Harry Hole is quite possibly at his best in this novel, even though emotionally he's at his lowest point. He has become a very real person here, battling through his personal demons which makes him a bit reckless and often prone to acting without thinking. He warns others who want to work with him that it is his pattern to drag them down alongside himself, and he is not wrong. But despite all of his personal issues, Harry is the consummate detective, and will not let go of the case until it is finished, no matter what means he has to use to get the job done.

Nesbø has done an incredible job with The Leopard, and readers of crime fiction, especially those who have followed Nesbø's series from the beginning, will in no way be disappointed. He is able to pique the reader's interest at the very start of the novel with a most nasty crime and a bad guy who has absolutely no conscience, then ratchet up the tension level little by little until it is almost impossible to put the book down. His plotting is meticulous, but it is his attention to detail, the addition of the tension between the two police groups, and above all his portrayal of Harry Hole on a most human level that makes this story work and work well. There are also several references to Hole's other cases here and there throughout the story, bringing to mind all that this man has been through.

On the downside, The Leopard is incredibly long, and I found some of it a bit confusing at times, especially regarding one of the subplots of the novel. It moves slowly in several parts to the point where you think you might be trying to crawl through jello. And yes, there are some very over-the-top moments that Nesbø seems to enjoy throwing into each one of his novels that make the action a little hard to swallow sometimes. However, it is probably my favorite of the series, and although it took some time to read, it was well worth every second. I started this on an airplane, and as much as I hate flying, I forgot where I was for the entire 5 hours because I was so caught up in the story. Do not make The Leopard your introduction to the Harry Hole series -- if nothing else, at least read The Snowman, so you will have an understanding of Harry's mindset going into this one, which is in many ways the continuation of the latter. Better yet, start with The Redbreast and read your way through one of the best crime fiction series currently available.

 crime fiction from Norway